For some reason, nobody ever asks me to give the commencement address at their local high school or college. This despite the fact that I promised to wear pantyhose and everything, and to leave the bottle at home. Bunch of anti-Semites.
Anyway, I’m not one to be bitter. I’m not going to let this snubbing gnaw away at me. I’m just going to go ahead and write that speech anyway, and print out several copies of it, and keep them in the diaper bag in the car, next to the Luger PO8 and the farewell note. Because you never, never know!
Here’s what I have to say. Graduates, as I look out over your bright, eager faces, my heart wells with emotion and a single phrase springs into my mind: Better you than me.
Gee, I would give anything to not be you right now. What a horrible time this is for you. I mean, think about it: You’re on the verge of starting a new life. The possibilities are endless—what the future holds is bounded only by the limits of your imagination. You can be anything you want to be, if you only believe in yourself. You can shoot for the stars!
I’m so, so sorry.
Because that’s what people have been telling you, right? Isn’t that what your guidance counselor said—that there are no limits to what you can achieve?
You know that’s crazy talk, right?
I mean that literally: Only people with a mental illness would truly believe that you can achieve anything. People who actually get things done are the people who look at themselves and say, “Okey-doke. There are some things I’m good at, and many thousands more things that I am and always will be utterly unqualified to do. Starting tomorrow, my job is do the least amount of thrashing around and wasting of my parent’s tuition money as possible, while I figure out the difference between my very few strengths and my billions of weaknesses.
“Then, I need to figure out if there’s any possible way I can do what it turns out I’m good at, and also be a decent human being. If possible, it would be wonderful if the things I’m good at, and which allow me to be decent, are also things which will earn me a salary.”
And after you have that conversation with yourself, and preferably after you come up with a better plan than scrawling “FIX LIFE” on your memo pad, then you can go out drinking with your buddies.
Because here’s the deal, you poor deluded masses of inchoate ambition: Freedom is for something. Freedom is so that you can get something done. Yes, it’s valuable and precious in itself—but it’s not a resting place. Having potential is like being hungry: You want to resolve that in some definite way. All the best things in life come when you tie yourself down in one way or another, when you accept some limitations.
Think about all the things that make life worth living—all the things that people you admire are proud of. A huge project achieved? They neglected other things—fun things!—to get it done. A happy marriage? They forsook all others to remain faithful. A vocation of any kind? Saying Yes to one thing always means saying No to a dozen more. It doesn’t mean that all the rejected opportunities are bad. It just means that you’re only one person, and are here to do one person’s work.
This doesn’t mean you have to rush into it. There’s nothing especially admirable about going whole hog for the wrong thing (just ask the guy with the Betty Boop tattoo on his forehead). So take your time, look around, and don’t be rash. But for the love of mike, remember that this stage of your life is supposed to come to an end some day. Even if you never end up with a career at all, you will eventually have some huge choices to make.
Or you know what? You might not even get to make a choice: You might find yourself faced with some horrible situation, and guess who’s the only one who can fix it? That’s right, the guy in the mirror, the one who fell asleep in a trash can and his friend drew cat whiskers on his face with permanent markers. The lives of others may someday depend on you, Mr. Fluffy. Try to make at least some of your current behavior reflect that fact.
So congratulations, graduates! You did it. Some of you worked moderately hard to be here today, and I applaud you. Now go forth, act decent, call your mother from time to time. And remember, nobody’s life ever got better after drinking a rum and Coke.
(This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2011.)